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Raghida Dergham

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The Dangers of a Protracted Crisis in Syria

Posted: 03/ 3/2012 9:27 am

New York -- This week, the U.S. Administration came close to speaking a language similar to that of the Russian government, when describing the dangers of the opposition to the Syrian regime, and the fact that it involves Islamic extremism, which would require reducing support to the opposition. This comes after Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, had described the stances taken by Russia and China regarding the Syrian crisis as "despicable" and "distressing."

From the start, Moscow warned against the rise of Islamists to power, and spoke of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists as "terrorists" or "extremists" who seek to overthrow the regime by force. Washington, on the other hand, has come to view the Muslim Brotherhood as representative of moderate Islam, disregarding Russia's claims for months, before suddenly awakening to its concerns about al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as well as Hamas, because of their statements in support of overthrowing the regime in Damascus.

One of the reasons behind the Obama administration backing down with such a scandalous degree of "insolence" -- in keeping with the term that has been repeatedly used in diplomatic altercations as of late -- is the fact that Israel has returned to opposing the overthrow of the regime in Damascus, according to a source within the administration who has asked to remain anonymous. This means that the axis that includes Russia, China, Iran and the Syrian regime now also includes Israel -- and through Israel, American opposition to this peculiar and rather intriguing axis is mitigated.

Indeed, within this axis, communism meets with tyrannical authoritarianism in Damascus, and with religious dogmatism through the Mullahs of Tehran and the rulers of Israel. As for the opposing axis, it too brings together opposites, as it includes the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Syrian opposition -- in both its secular aspect and its religious one as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups. The battle between the two axes is a very dangerous one, particularly for Syria, but the repercussions of the wars that are being and that will be waged by proxy are numerous and bear consequences for multiple players. Volatility in stances warns of slow destruction, and weak resolve paves the way for escalation and further radicalizes extremist forces.

The climate in the GCC indicates that matters are heading towards a GCC-Iranian-Russian confrontation on Syrian soil, similar to what took place in Afghanistan during the Cold War. To be sure, the decision has been taken to overthrow the Syrian regime, seeing as it is vital to the regional influence and hegemony of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The GCC leaders have therefore resolved to confront everyone and anyone who supports keeping the Syrian regime in power.

Two weeks ago, this confrontation was fundamentally with Russia, and also China -- the two countries that wielded a double veto to prevent the Security Council from supporting the plan put forward by the Arab League for political transition in Syria. After the statements made both by U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which shed doubt on the Syrian opposition and revealed the lack of trust in it or desire to arm it, the GCC confrontation is now on two fronts: one Russian/Chinese, and the other American. It is the view of some in GCC countries that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) will not stand idly by and that it will enter as a partner in the confrontation alongside the coalition of GCC countries, as it did in the past in Afghanistan. They feel that the Obama administration will play contradictory cards that cannot be trusted, especially during the electoral period, but that the United States will at the end of the day stand alongside the GCC coalition, exactly as it did in Afghanistan when the common goal was the downfall of the Soviet Union through the gateway of Afghanistan.

Today, it seems that this vision is based on bringing down Iranian influence and the hegemony of the mullahs through the gateway of Syria -- as the latter is indeed the axle on the wheel. This would of course require a stance by Turkey in favor of the decision to confront the Russian-Iranian-Syrian axis. Turkey will not enter as a direct party to the proxy war in the Syrian arena, but the Turkish-Syrian border will welcome refugees, set up humanitarian camps, and provide the means to distribute the weapons that will be funded by GCC countries. And according to the latter's vision, even Europe will be driven to choose between the two axes after the proxy war starts, regardless of the extent to which it is hesitating or backing down now.

Confronting Iran in Syria would not have been part of the GCC's plans had the Syrian people not rebelled, and had the regime in Damascus not committed such grave mistakes. Now both sides need one another: the opposition needs the GCC countries in every sense of the word to be able to achieve its main goal of overthrowing the regime; and the GCC countries need the Syrian opposition to remain active, and need to enable it to achieve the overthrow of the regime in Damascus, thereby achieving the goal of restraining Iran's hegemony and reducing its influence on the Arab scene. Thus meet two completely different sets of interests: the Syrian people's interests, and the interests of GCC countries to isolate Iran.

No one expects this confrontation to be a walk in the park. Rather, it will most likely involve some chaos at the regional level, and some surprises. The wager to begin with is on the fact that the regime in Damascus has become besieged, with neither the means nor the capabilities to carry on. All it has is moral and political support from Russia, and some material and military support it receives from Iran and perhaps from Hezbollah in Lebanon. Thus, according to this view, the main element of the confrontation strategy is attrition -- i.e. exhausting the Syrian regime, and exhausting the Iranian regime in Syria. Consistent with this view, as time passes and as it becomes clear that the GCC countries are determined to move forward with this confrontation without any hesitation no matter what, Russia and China will reconsider and will not continue to support the regime in Damascus. Thus, such a view is based on predicting chaos, bloody confrontation and the situation persisting as it is for months to come. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the regime will disappear.

Those who have such an outlook take the factor of Hezbollah into account, as well as that of Israel and its influence on American policy. They expect Hezbollah to be party to proxy wars, where it would be an instrument in the service of the Russian-Iranian-Syrian axis to wage a counter-war of attrition on the Arab Gulf scene. They also expect the persistence of the Syrian crisis to lead to growing extremism among the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, and to increased chances for al Qaeda to enter as a party to the conflict.

If the crisis were to be prolonged, the fear of Islamic extremism will come back to haunt both Russia and the United States, as then the coalition of extremism would have grown to become a "fierce tiger," according to this view. Thus, the interests of Russia, China, the United States and Europe require recognizing the dangers of prolonging the Syrian crisis and taking the decision to quickly put an end to it by adopting a strategy for getting rid of the regime one way or another. If the means to achieve this are similar to the Yemeni model, i.e. immunity upon leaving power, then so be it. But if the decision is to hold on to the regime, then the GCC's response is that its own decision will be one of confrontation until the regime in Damascus is overthrown.

Wars of attrition do not stop at the arenas of proxy wars, but also bear an aspect of attrition for the countries that are party to the decision to engage in such wars. The GCC countries are therefore likely to be exhausted in several ways, by several means and on several levels. They realize that exhausting them will not be only in material terms, and that there are in fact preparations being made to wear them down through proxy wars in their own arenas. This is why they consider the region to be heading towards chaos. But they have made their decision -- the decision to confront Iran in the Syrian arena, whether Russia likes it or not, and whether the United States is participating or backing down. The more difficult factor within such considerations is Israel. Indeed, Israel on the one hand is suggesting that it is on the verge of directing a strike against the military nuclear reactors in Iran, while it on the other hand nearly partners with Tehran's mullahs and with Russia, which protects Iran, when it comes to Syria. Moreover, Israel had lately stopped talking of its fear of the Muslim Brotherhood rising to power in Syria, but then returned to fear-mongering about it.

The fragmentation of the Syrian opposition might be one of the factors causing the Israelis to reconsider, but their supposed dismissal of the whole opposition and returning to cling to the regime is a matter that arouses suspicion. Certainly Israel considers it to be in its interest to maintain a weak regime in Damascus, but what is suspicious is that Israel is perfectly well aware that this battle is now about Iran. Indeed, if the regime in Damascus were to remain in place, Tehran would grow more powerful and influential at the regional level. Why then would Israel consider this to be in its interest? And why does the United States not see that this goes against its own interest, on both the short and the long-term? If the answer is realizing now that the rise of the Islamists to power in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Morocco and perhaps Syria is the reason, then the logical response is that Syria might provide the right opportunity to stop the process of Islamists rising to power. This would require political skill, at the regional and international levels, that would take into account all fears and considerations within a lucid strategy that would lead to putting a stop to the bloodshed of the Syrian people, putting an end to the Cold War game, and bringing the international community back together.

The features and the means of reaching such an agreement are clear to everyone. One such means lies in returning to the strategy-drafting table to reach an understanding among the major powers, with the strong and profound participation of major Arab Gulf states and the Arab League. There is a way to encourage political, diplomatic and military defections -- in particular the defection of senior generals from the Alawite community -- with an understanding in advance over the nature of the partnership with the new regime. There is immunity on the one hand, and on the other the means of prosecuting the leaders of the regime who have had a role to play in the war crimes and crimes against humanity that have been committed. There is the option of establishing contacts with non-Islamists in the Syrian opposition, and in particular women, who have become aware of what has come from the rise of Islamists to power in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen -- they are now mature and necessary instruments of change in Syria and must be taken into account. And there are a great many more means and instruments, if good intentions are to dominate the scene.

UN-Arab League Joint Special Envoy to Syria, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, may well be a useful instrument for fine-tuning those options. If, on the other hand, his mission is one of traditional mediation, he will fall victim to the process of buying time and his fate will be failure -- failure over the dead bodies of hundreds and thousands more of the Syrian people, who now fall between the claws of tyranny and the claws of being used in bloody wars of attrition.

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